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Affluent parents giving up custody of kids for better college financial aid

Dozens of parents have abandoned their parental rights in an effort to reduce college expenses for their children

The study, conducted by the Barna Group in collaboration with the Association for Biblical Higher Education, asked parents of prospective students to identify what they consider to be the goals or ultimate purpose of college education. |

In a shocking recent story reported by ProPublica, reporters discovered 40 cases of Illinois parents relinquishing their guardianship of the children, in order to help them qualify for more financial aid. The parents were typically professionals working jobs that put them in the upper-middle-class bracket; “lawyers, a doctor and an assistant schools superintendent, as well as insurance and real estate agents.” During their teens’ junior or senior year of high school, the parents typically handed custody over to a friend, aunt, cousin, grandparent or other trusted adult in an effort to make their child appear “low-income” and qualify for more financial aid.

Is this a scam to try to find loopholes and access more money, similar to the recent celebrity college bribery scandal? Or, does this desperate ploy reveal that higher education prices are simply too expensive? Perhaps, it’s a bit of both.

Scamming the System?

Although the report unearthed a few dozen cases of this scheme in action in Chicago’s affluent suburbs, it’s likely that the practice of giving up guardianship is happening in communities across the country.

ProPublica spoke to Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about the moral implications of this tactic. “It’s a scam. Wealthy families are manipulating the financial aid process to be eligible for financial aid they would not be otherwise eligible for. They are taking away opportunities from families that really need it.”

A Sign that College is Prohibitively Expensive

Graduating from college is still the best way to ensure professional success for a young adult, but the expenses to earn that diploma are proving increasingly debilitating. The average debt incurred by a college graduate is $37,172 and when a young person is focused on paying off this debt, they lose the ability to invest in other behaviors which may increase their net worth; they hesitate to buy a house, to invest in retirement, to embark on a graduate degree or grow wealth in other ways.

They may have parents who opt not to support their college expenses (even if it appears on paper that these affluent parents have the means to help). When a young person fills out their FAFSA to apply for financial aid, they must prove formal separation from their parents to qualify as an “independent.” Because they must provide documentation, it’s logical that families would get desperate and may embark on a legal guardianship change.

The ploy is concerning, but it’s also concerning that people are so desperate to decrease college expenses that they’re dissolving their family units to avoid debt. The United States is the second most expensive country in the world to attend college. Alternatively, developed countries like France, Germany, Spain and Sweden offer free tuition. Changing policy in the United States would not be a simple task, but it’s clear that voters (especially young people) are increasingly demanding solutions.

Debt Shouldn’t Divide Families

In the Bible, we read often of the value of children honoring their parents, of marriages staying intact and of loving each other the way Christ loved the Church. It stands to reason that intentionally separating family bonds for financial gain is not something that God desires.

Scamming a system and taking tuition support designed for low-income Americans is deeply concerning. However, the astronomical costs of college have contributed to this desperate behavior to find legal loopholes. The solution is to both close the legal loopholes that have allowed this scheme and also to make college more affordable for all Americans.

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